Climate Change and the Crisis for the Poor: Why I am Going to Jail
In a few days, Sam Pullen and I will be going to jail in Washington DC. We are participating in a civil disobedience designed to pressure the government to change from coal to renewable energy. But when I mention to supporters of the Center that we are taking part in an action to combat global climate change, some people are confused. “Aren’t you an organization for the working poor?” they ask. Of all the organizations sponsoring the action – there are over a hundred, in addition to a long list of prominent authors, scientist, and celebrities that are endorsing the protest — it seems that we are one of the only ones regarded as a labor group for the poor. Yet this is exactly why I feel called to risk arrest in trying shut down a massively polluting coal power plant in the heart of our nation’s capital. Simply put: confronting environmental problems is no longer just about preserving parks, wetlands, and endangered species. It is about facing life and death issues that affect the poor more than anyone.
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And strengthen our call.
Before the global economic depression fully hit, the world witnessed one of the largest simultaneous protests ever undertaken by the poor. “Riots from Haiti to Bangladesh to Egypt” broke out, wrote CNN. Time magazine noted, “From Mexico to Pakistan, protests have turned violent. Rioters tore through three cities in the West African nation of Burkina Faso last month, burning government buildings and looting stores.” In Cameroon massive protest left 20 people dead. “Similar protest exploded in Senegal and Mauritania late last year,” Time reported.
Unfortunately, there was no, well-coordinated international grassroots organization that was channeling this discontent. On the contrary, the protests were prompted by global markets; they were an expression of one of the greatest hunger pains in global history. The problems that environmentalist predicted would result from our dependency on oil, combined with climate change and global population growth, created a dramatic increase in global food prices that left millions of the poorest around the world hungry. Although we have been avoiding the solution, it is ultimately inevitable. We need a dramatic shift to renewable energy. Indeed, we cannot avoid this shift any longer without grave consequences for the world’s most vulnerable populations.
When I am able to find an adequate stretch of time for spiritual reflection, I go to a monastery settled amid avocado orchards in the mountains south of Los Angeles. A few months ago, I had a moment of awakening there. I have visited for years and seen the monks mindfully maintain the trees, and I seen the arduous work of immigrant farm workers who play Ranchero music on boom boxes as they picked the harvest when it came due. A few months ago, after meditating for hours, I slowly walked to the orchards for a designated afternoon work period. I was assigned by the abbot to help the monks mindfully chainsaw all the trees into piles of sticks. It took this very physical and visceral experience of destruction in a very isolated and peaceful place to awaken to what I already should have appreciated: California is in the middle of the worst drought in its recorded history. Next year, the state will not be able to provide cheap water to all the farmers south of Los Angeles. Thousands of field will remain dry and fallow. Many of the fruit groves that the counties south of Los Angeles are know for will be cut down. Farm laborers will have an even more difficult time surviving. Los Angeles is voting next week to ration water. Rationing is already happening in Mexico City, where they will soon turn off the water for three days a month. It is not hard for experts to demonstrate a global pattern. Unprecedented droughts sweeping the world are proof of what climate change scientists have predicted again and again, like biblical prophets: Global warming means more droughts, hurricanes, floods, and fires. This is just the beginning.
Recently, author and editor Tom Englehardt wrote a wonderful piece on the drought epidemic. He explained: “[C]entral China is experiencing the worst drought in half a century. Temperatures have been unseasonably high and rainfall, in some areas, 80% below normal; more than half the country’s provinces have been affected by drought, leaving millions of Chinese and their livestock without adequate access to water….. Globe-jumping to the Middle East, Iraq, which makes the news these days mainly for spectacular suicide bombings or the politics of American withdrawal, turns out to be another country in severe drought. Americans may think of Iraq as largely desert, but (as we were all taught in high school) the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the ‘fertile crescent,’ are considered the homeland of agriculture, not to speak of human civilization. Well, not so fertile these days, it seems. The worst drought in at least a decade and possibly a farming lifetime is expected to reduce wheat production by at least half; while the country’s vast marshlands, once believed to be the location of the Garden of Eden, have been turned into endless expanses of baked mud.”
Tom continues: “Leaping continents, in Latin America, Argentina is experiencing ‘the most intense, prolonged and expensive drought in the past 50 years,’ according to Hugo Luis Biolcati, the president of the Argentine Rural Society. One of the world’s largest grain exporters, it has already lost five billion dollars to the drought. Its soybeans — the country is the third largest producer of them — are wilting in the fields; its corn — Argentina is the world’s second largest producer — and wheat crops are in trouble; and its famed grass-fed herds of cattle are dying — 1.5 million head of them since October with no end in sight.”
To me, Tom’s article, like the dried avocado trees at the monastery, made clear that we, as a society, need a wake up call. The crisis is already here, we just do not feel it—at least those of us sheltered by middle class comforts. The poor do feel it. They are the ones who go hungry during droughts and who are left abandoned in hurricanes. Just ask those trapped by Katrina, or those who lived in the large trailer park that became perhaps the greatest casualty of the forest fires that swept California last year.
The solution to climate change is a shift to renewable energy, away from fossil fuels like coal, which is the largest supplier of carbon dioxide on the planet. Many steps need to be taken, including making bold investments in solar energy. However, many who profit from coal and oil and are resisting these changes. They are investing millions of dollars in political contributions and PR campaigns. There must be a force, an organized demand, to oppose them. I am getting arrested to demand that we start to phase out coal power immediately. The Capitol Power Plant in Washington DC is actually owned by the federal government and supplies heat specifically for the Capitol complex. It is a perfect symbol of our nation’s dependency on coal.
In my experience organizing, I know that one of the profound moments in people waking up to the seriousness of an issue is when they see someone non-violently sacrifice him- or herself for a cause. In Washington, we expect over ten thousand people to rally at it gates. When hundreds of people risk arrest to shut down the power plant for a day, I know we our statement will be felt. Already the powerful are taking notice. Just three days before the announced protest–after years of local activists calling for the end of burning coal at the Capitol Power Plant–Nancy Pelosi and Henry Reid declared that they officially supported this demand. Now, I hope the rest of the world will take notice—not only of our modest sacrifice, but of the much louder call of the world’s poor.
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